Review: How I Learned To Serve Tea (Progress Festival / Why Not Theatre)

New performance leaves our reviewer “full of questions in the best and most interesting way.”

I find it quite impossible to “review” (in a traditional sense), the performance/workshop/offering of How I Learned To Serve Tea by Shaista Latif, ¬†which I experienced as part of the Progress Festival of Performance and Ideas.

This should not be taken as an indictment of the work, which I found thoroughly nourishing and quite delicious to participate in. Rather, because How I Learned To Serve Tea seems to me far more an Idea than a Performance.

It feels underserved by a traditional review, and so I will instead offer what seems potentially useful: my experience and reflections.

Guests arrive to laid tables at The Theatre Center, set with teacups and teapots, fruit, games, and snacks set on lavishly embellished runners. My table (of 6) started talking and introducing ourselves, all very keen to do the expected thing as guests. The tables around us did likewise – soon the room filled with the buzz of strangers taking an opportunity to be present with other strangers.

After a while, Latif called for our attention and began to share her reflections and ask questions on which we, her guests, were also asked to reflect. The experience has commonalities with Lois Weaver’s setting of The Long Table, but Latif has also lavishly embellished her physical and emotional space creation in a way that a Long Table purposely does not. To me, it echoed two different world views: Weaver feels that whatever people bring to a Long Table is what’s needed, while Latif addresses and makes visible the ways in which her guests are advantaged or marginalized by the identities we bring as we sit.

The conversation is structured, and check-ins are frequent – who in the room has had certain experiences? How do guests feel about what we are being or have been asked to do? What spoken or unspoken transactions, agreements, and coercions are happening right now? I thought often during the two hours (which flew by for me) of human rights activist and educator Cesar Cruz‘s axiom that “art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,” as we grappled with the ideas of desire, of lack and excess, of identity, of money and how it works, of our literal and figurative place, of choice.

Underlying it all was a tension about responsibility and authority – who held it in the space, and who holds it in the world, and how is that accomplished, and who affirms it to make it so? What does an agreement to elevate a single person give to that person, what does it mean to the people who aren’t similarly elevated, and how does that impact community, generosity, or our ideas of success? What are the stakes of the event? What do we take with us, or not, when we go?

It’s impossible for me to collect or condense the complexity of the experience in a review, and every event would necessarily be different as who’s in the room profoundly impacts the experience. As an example, toward the end, Latif walked through the room with a large pomegranate and a small cleaver, cutting it expertly into sections and handing one to each table. Most of the people to whom she handed sections carefully opened them and spilled the arils out into a dish or cup to be shared but at one table the person who received the chunk just put it in their mouth and ate it all.

Perhaps you have your own feelings about this, but by the end of the time I found myself awash in mine: did they consider themselves the lucky one chosen? Why would or wouldn’t they look to see what others were doing? Is doing the same as the other tables desirable or not? Is it better to each have a few arils each among 6-8 people or better for one person to enjoy a chin-dribbling feast of ripe pomegranate? Does it matter what identities that person holds? What does it mean to take all of something, or half, or an equal portion by count, or a portion related to our ability to purchase our own pomegranate later if we want one? How do we share?

As a host, Latif offered guests a banquet of ideas and complications, and as guests, we sampled them – the sweet and the bitter, the familiar and the novel, the expected and the wildly new. At the end of the afternoon I found myself companionably sharing a fragrant teacup with a stranger who I read as queer, thinking about the commonplace of queer intimacies and whether I would have accepted the suggestion to share as readily from a stranger I read as straight, and what other identities would or would not have made me feel comfortable sharing, and with whom – in that space – I would have agreed to share even if I didn’t feel quite comfortable, and why, and why, and why.

The experience still reverberates, and I expect it will continue to, on the strength of Latif’s deft-but-not-delicate creation. In case it’s not clear, How I Learned To Serve Tea left me full of questions in the best and most interesting way.